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A carnival of books

BY ERIC SUNDERMANN | JULY 16, 2009 7:15 AM

Close your eyes and walk around Iowa City swinging a stick — you’re bound to hit a writer in the forehead.

For some reason, being surrounded by cornfields produces some of the best writing in the world. The UI is home to the world-renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop and International Writing Program.

Countless novelists, poets, and playwrights have lived in the city, from Kurt Vonnegut to Marilynne Robinson to Tennessee Williams. Prairie Lights Books is known as one of the liveliest independent bookstores in the country, hosting countless authors with its weekly reading series, “Live From Prairie Lights.” And each summer, the Summer Writing Festival takes over coffee shops and conference rooms across town to promote the craft. What could possibly be missing? The answer — a book festival.

The inaugural Iowa City Book Festival will take place Saturday in Gibson Square, right outside the UI Main Library at the intersection of Burlington and Madison Streets. The event will start at 10 a.m. and runs all day, and it is cosponsored by the UI Libraries and UI Press. The occasion will be a carnival for books with vendors, readings, and workshops happening all over the park and inside the Main Library.



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Kristi Bontrager, the public-relations coordinator of UI Libraries and co-project director for the festival, believes the community lacked something — and the festival fills that space.

“If you take a look around Iowa City and start thinking about all the reading and writing, you’re like, of course we need a book festival,” she said. “That’s something that’s completely missing here. So we took this opportunity to fill that void in our cultural landscape with the book festival.”

There were a few reasons that prompted the idea for the festival. This past fall, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization designated Iowa City as the world’s third City of Literature — a very prestigious recognition. The city joined the ranks of Edinburgh, Scotland, and Melbourne, Australia.

“It’s really exciting,” Bontrager said. “I think this designation makes more people aware of what kind of great history and tradition is here in writing and literature.”

The second catalyst for the event revolves around the UI Libraries gaining is 5 millionth book, The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, edited by David Hudson, Marvin Bergman, and Loren Horton and published by the UI Press, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary. This amalgam of events propelled the idea of the book festival into reality.

Allison Means, the associate marketing manager at the UI Press, said the festival’s goal is to provide something for everyone.

“You’re going to meet all these cool authors and writers, and people who are from the area or who are just fond of the city even if they don’t live here,” Means said. “They’re so many things to do there, for all ages, whether you’re interested in the artistic sides of book making or writing or reading or you just want to learn more in general.”

Among a variety of events for the day, the festival features two major attractions. The Oxford Project creators, Peter Feldstein and Stephen G. Bloom, will give the keynote address on Saturday at 7 p.m. Published this past September, The Oxford Project uses a combination of photography and literature to capture the town of Oxford, Iowa, population approximately 650. The book features two pictures of residents, one taken in 1984 and the other in 2006, and a short narrative from each person telling her or his story. The response has been explosive.

“Most of what I did over the years was printmaking and painting, so it came as quite a shock to me to have this attention brought to something that I, in a sense, began on a lark,” photographer Feldstein said. “I took it very seriously, but it wasn’t something I thought of as the main body of what I do. It’s been quite a shock and quite wonderful — it just tickles me pink.”

The authors wanted to present a project of everyday people in a society that tends to obsess about celebrities. During the interview period, the authors didn’t ask any questions but instead simply asked for the person’s story.

“It’s a testimonial to every man and every woman,” Bloom said. “It’s very democratic. We don’t privilege anyone over anyone else — everyone has stories to tell, no matter who that person is.”

The other main event revolves around identical twin brothers Noah and Logan Miller and their two projects. The first, a film titled Touching Home, is an autobiographical coming-of-age story about a homeless father who struggles to heal his relationship with his two sons as they pursue baseball as a career. While the second, Either You’re In or You’re In the Way, is a novel centering on the journey the brothers took to make the film — which includes cornering Ed Harris in an alley to pitch him the movie and spreading costs out over 17 credit cards.

“We wrote it for anyone wanting to read an adventure story about two guys going after a dream,” the Miller brothers said. “We wanted to tell a good story that would, hopefully, inspire people and make them laugh at the same time. We didn’t want to get buried in technical details of filmmaking; we thought that would take away from the story.”

With these different events, the Iowa City Book Festival will provide an array of excitement for anyone who loves books, and organizers hope it sheds new light on what people believe the library is like.

“Honestly, I think it’s just going to be a fun day,” Means said. “There’s going to be tons of stuff to do. You’ll get to see the library in a completely welcoming way.”


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